Associate Professor, University of Iowa

Matatu Scams

Matatu Scams

One of the best ways to get around Nairobi (or Kenya for that matter) is via matatu – 15-passenger vans that run different routes throughout the city. Within Nairobi, rides can be as cheap at 10KSH (~$.13), and they can get into the hundreds of shillings for trips outside the city. Yes, they’re crowded, often noisy, sometimes smelly, and occasionally reckless, but they are also quite the bargain and can be pretty fun to ride, too.

That being said, when you start talking to fellow matatu riders (especially foreigners), you realize there are some standard matatu scams that thieves will try to use to get your valuables. I’m compiling a list of the ones I know of in hopes that I might save some potential victim the frustration of losing a bag, wallet, etc. Comment if you know of any more scams to add.

Police Check Seatbelt Scam
I have had this attempted on my multiple times. You’re riding along and someone behind you taps you on the shoulder and says there’s a police check up ahead and you need to put your seatbelt on. In the commotion, someone will “help” you put your seatbelt on by reaching at your side and pulling something from your bag or pocket. I’ve heard of people losing purses, wallets and even laptops during this scam.

“I Dropped My Change” Scam
I’ve only had this attempted on me once, but I’ve talked to others who’ve been duped by this. Someone behind you will tap your shoulder and tell you they dropped their change and it’s on the floor by you. When you bend over to look, they’ll lean over the seat and grab something from your bag or pocket.

Squeeze Past Me Scam
When you get to your stop, one of the riders between you and the door will just turn to the side and allow you to squeeze by instead of getting out of the matatu completely. Now while many passengers will do this because they’re too lazy to get out of the matatu, some will want you to squeeze by so they can quickly dig into your pockets without you noticing the contact. I’ll admit I had my wallet taken from my side pocket on one of my first matatu rides by the guy sitting next to me whom I had to climb over to get out.
(Melissa suggested I mention many matatu riders will just have you squeeze past rather than get out. That doesn’t mean they’re all going for your valuables. But it’s still a good idea to check your pockets before and after a squeeze.)

Big Envelope/Bag Scam
If you get on a matatu and a few seconds later someone gets on after you, sits next to you, and places a large envelope or bag on his/her lap, then watch out. They’ll spread the envelope/bag over your leg and then use the cover to investigate your bag or pockets.

Pass the Fair Scam
Because the tout can’t reach every passenger to collect their fares, if you’re sitting in the very back or front, you’ll often have to pass your fare to someone else to get to the tout. While this has never happened to me, I met someone who passed a 200KSH bill to the person in front of them, and then watched that rider immediately hop off with her fare.

As I said, I was a victim to the squeeze scam right after I arrived in Kenya in January 2009. But, I ride matatus several times a day, and even though I’ve been on board during several other attempted scams, I haven’t been duped a second time (yet). I think the big difference now is I’m cautious and I’m aware of my surroundings. So if you want to avoid getting scammed, I suggest the following tips:

  1. Pay attention. If someone tries one of these scams, tell them off right away and get out as soon as possible.
  2. Avoid carrying things in open bags and pockets. Zip up your valuables if you can. I regularly wear a jacket with zipper pockets and put my wallet inside.
  3. Try not to look like you’re new to this. All sorts of people ride matatus, but it’s those who look like newbies who are targeted.
  4. If you’re worried about squeezing past others, only ride in matatus when there’s a seat in the front few rows. Over time, you’ll get more comfortable with it and finding sitting in the “way back” isn’t so bad.
  5. (I don’t want to be sexist, but…) Look at the male-female ratio. I’ve never seen or heard of a female scammer, so I always feel a bit safer sitting next to a woman or in a matatu full of women.

And if you do get scammed, report it on Hatari and don’t let it stick with you. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Just learn the signs of the scammers and try to make it your last time scammed.



5 thoughts on “Matatu Scams”

  • Did I tell you about when me and Ryan almost got our ma3 jacked outside of Prestige? Also, Ryan got his laptop stolen with a combo seat belt and big envelope scam.

  • These things are true and there are people waking up everyday just do this kind of Job, You will see people moving very first, you might think that they are ending to somewhere or to a crucial meeting (because some of these con men are very smart) but their mission is different. Its true if you are keen you will notice some of these people.

    If you notice something usual i advise that you change direction, another thing is that, avoid using the routes that do not have many people.

    There are also people who will pretend to ask for assistance, some will ask do you know which way leads me to,,,,,,,,,,,, watch such people. Don’t have any long conversation with them, try to end the conversation as quickly as possible

  • Just want to say that the ‘dropped my change’ scam is still alive and well. Someone had my camera yesterday using that and I’ve been in Nairobi and using the ma-3 for over 3 months now. Oh well, as you say, once bitten twice shy. Useful to know the other ones as well.

    • Pole sana. On this trip, I’ve had more people try to overcharge me, but I haven’t had any attempted thefts (that I know of). I’m sure your camera is being put to good use…

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